Gonzalez, Leyva's mother, was born in Cárdenas two years before Alvarez. She remembers standing on her head and doing tumbles as a child. When Gonzalez was 8, one of her teachers asked her mother if she'd be interested in gymnastics. "My mom took me to try out, and I fell in love with the sport," she recalls. "A year later, I was in Havana."

She competed in regional and national events, and by the time she was 12, she had earned second place in the national championship in her age group. Like Alvarez, she competed in European countries such as Bulgaria and Hungary.

"Maria was very quiet and always well-prepared," former teammate Alyssa Sanchez remembers. "But Yin was mischievous. He was always joking around. We were all tight, like brothers and sisters."

Danell Leyva
Giulio Sciorio
Danell Leyva

With only 110 students at the academy, they became fast friends. The gymnasts lived in dormitories on the school's Havana campus, studying, training, and eating together. Their athletic gifts gave them opportunities to travel that other children in Cuba couldn't imagine.

Ivonne Conseco, another former teammate, who was 14 years old when she competed in the 1974 Copa de las Americas in the Dominican Republic, remembers that the group lived in a bubble. "We didn't know about the problems in Cuba," she says. "The government gave us the best that was available. We had more things than the average Cuban."

Alvarez agrees. "We grew up in a school where we didn't see the reality of what was going on," he says. "We had proper nutrition. We had doctors who would treat us for free. But we knew we couldn't express ourselves the way we wanted to."

In 1979, when she was 16, Gonzalez left the team. "I felt I was too old to compete," she says. "I went to work as a ballet choreographer." She enrolled at the Manuel Fajardo Higher Institute of Physical Education and, after graduating in 1983, took a job as a gymnastics instructor.

Alvarez, on the other hand, became a coach for the national team after his competing days ended in 1984. Four years later, he quit. By then, he'd become disillusioned by the regime. The team no longer lived better than the rest of Cuba. With the economy in a tailspin, there was no money for equipment or regular travel.

In early December 1991, Alvarez's troupe was sent on a rare trip to Mexico City for a two-week Christmas-themed show. "It was the best opportunity to defect," he says. "A couple of my friends had already done it that way."

After sneaking out of the hotel, he caught a bus that took him to the border, where he made his frigid, successful swim. On December 25, safely in Texas, Alvarez called his father, who was already in Miami. With money from his dad, Alvarez made it to the Magic City by New Year's Day. Within weeks, he landed a job teaching gymnastics in West Miami.

Gonzalez, meanwhile, remained in Havana, where she met her son's biological father, an engineering professor named Johan Leyva, in 1990. Gonzalez broke up with him before Danell was born a year later, on October 30. (She also has an older daughter, Dayanis, from a previous relationship.) Leyva has never met Johan, who now lives in Spain.

When Danell was 5 months old, he developed severe asthma and respiratory allergies. By early 1993, Gonzalez struggled to get medicine. Sometimes she'd have only Tiger Balm to rub on the toddler's belly when he had spasms during asthma attacks.

"Every few weeks, I was rushing him to the hospital," she says. "Since I had no transportation, I would have to run or ride a bicycle while holding Danell every time. It was a horrible way to live."

She sent her parents, who had defected to Miami in '92, a telegram with a coded message in Spanish reading "We're perfectly fine," which actually meant she was fleeing Cuba. Gonzalez took Danell and his older sister to Peru, where they defected. Six months later, they arrived in the States, staying in a Miami Beach apartment owned by her sister, who had come to Miami in the 1980 Mariel boatlift.

The gymnast's first jobs were cleaning houses and delivering newspapers. "I used to get scared driving around Miami," she says. "It was late at night, and I really didn't know places. I would get lost."

One day, a mutual friend told Gonzalez that Alvarez, her old pal from the gymnastics team, was also in Miami. She tracked him down, and he helped her get a job coaching at the gym where he worked.

"I was very happy to see someone whom I had grown up with," Gonzalez says. "After reconnecting in Miami, we became supergood friends."

In 1995, Alvarez asked Gonzalez to join him at his own training center, which became Universal Gymnastics in Kendall. The ceiling was too low and the space was cramped, but the two were thrilled to have their own gym. "We had 20 kids then, and it looked like the gym was packed," he says.

As they honed their coaching, their personal chemistry grew. "The more we were around each other, the more I felt myself drawn to him," she says.

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